Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Originally uploaded by Ben-Zion.

We've had a couple of DVDs from Netflix sitting around the house for a couple of weeks. After a while, an unwatched movie becomes like a job.

"Are we going to watch this thing or not?" Ted will say.

"Maybe tomorrow. I've got some reading to do tonight," I reply. (Ever the procrastinator when it comes to anything that begins to resemble work.)

So last night it was do or die. We were either going to check these films out, or we were going to admit defeat and send them back in their cheery red jackets, unwatched.

I read the description of the first, Ushpizin: ...a week in the life of two recently converted orthodox Jews preparing for a lavish Sukkot feast...

"Doesn't sound like much of a plot." Ted winced. "Did you order that?"(Blaming each other for poor movie choices is one of the sports we've developed in our marriage.)

"The reviews were really good," I said defensively, though I had added the film to my list so long ago, I could no longer remember why.

Ted wasn't buying. "What about the other one?"

The second film was French, subtitled, and sounded slightly more promising. We popped it in the DVD player, but within twenty minutes, it was playing to an empty theatre. Ted had drifted off to his computer; I was doing laundry.

"Looks like you're not too interested in the movie either..." he called from his office. Since this clunker was another one of my choices, it was two points for him. I could practically hear the swish.

"It's interesting, but I'm not in the mood," I said in lame defense, though I already knew I'd lost the game. "Maybe we should try ten minutes of the other one. If it's no good, I'll send them both back tomorrow."

"Five." Ted ambled reluctantly toward the couch.

As it turned out, five minutes was all it took for us to be mesmerized by Shuli Rand's terrific portrayal of Moshe, and his obvious passion for the subject. (He wrote the screenplay as well.) Ushpizin is a film about religious faith--not the dogmatic, self-righteous kind, but the sort that is all about passion for God.

Like any intoxicated lover, Moshe thinks about his deity constantly; he and his wife, Malli, pray incessantly from their whole being. Whether in the kitchen or on the street, they sing to God, clap their hands, and raise their voices in love or grief as they struggle to make sense of their lives--and to do the right thing.

Having no money to celebrate the Sukkot, they pray that they will be given what they need to honor God properly on the holiday. And they are. Not only do they receive a gift large enough to cover an eleborate feast, they are surprised by unexpected guests.

Serving guests on a holiday is considered a great grace, so Moshe and Malli rejoice, determined to treat their Ushpizin or "holy visitors" as such. The only problem is that their Yussef and Eliyau are two escaped convicts, bent on exploiting their hosts.

The film (and beyond it, life) asks the question: Are believers like Moshe and Malli, who serve their vulgar and obstreperous guests with joy and generosity the fools and suckers Yussef and Eliyau believe them to be? Or are they full of holy wisdom?

The two oily guests eat the impoverished couple out of house and home, demand the last of their money, and ultimately disrupt both the Hasidic neighborhood and the marriage.

When Moshe turns to his rabbi for advice, he is told, "No matter what, don't get angry."

For the most part, Moshe, though eminently human, does not. He weeps and struggles and clenches his fist, but he continues to pray and to love. The reward he receives in the end seems contrived--and unnecessary.

For me, the central truth of the film was that Moshe and Malli had something that no one, not even a pair of determined con men, could take away from them. It was a gift so rare and beautiful that just watching it could make you weep.

What greater reward could they hope to gain?


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. It sounds like an old fairy tale mixed up with the story of Job.

As usual, I love how you write about it. I also love how you describe the whole movie-blaming spiral.

Oh, yeah, I know that one. My favorite is when I will put something in our queue solely because my true love has said during a trailer we've caught in a movie theatre that he'd like to see it. Usually what has also happened is that he's made a big pouting deal of the fact that I've said I don't want to see it because it looks like painful crap. Then, when the movie comes to our house, he is somehow unavailable and unavailable and unavailable to watch it with me 'til finally I tell him I'm going to watch it without him because we really need to send it back so that other things we (I) want to see more can come along and replace it (but I can't just send it back unwatched, 'cause that's a waste, like half-eating a meal in a restaurant and not getting a doggie bag). And then he capitulates to this plan with no argument, but with a funny tone and a look on his face that says, "Sucker! If that's how you want to throw away your time and consciousness, well enjoy yourself; I have better things to do." And then I watch it. And it sucks, like, to the point of being insulting. Like I knew it would. And I'm mad -- at him. And I never wanted to watch it in the first place.

(How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, I'm looking at you.)

Fred Garber said...

Patry, thanks for the review! I am going to go to get the DVD and watch it. This thing about welcoming the stranger resonates with me. To me that is what this whole immigration issue boils down to....

Brenda Clews said...

I've seen reviews for Ushpizin, and now it's back on my list... though it sounds like it raises many questions on the issue of belief and trust. That belief does not necessarily bestow any implicit safety on the believer. It's like, believe, but be wary. Whereas, if one believes then one wants to believe that the strength of the purity of that belief alone is enough to bestow safety on the believer. Only con men, and worse, can have a hey day with the naivete of those beliefs. I have to see the film to see if there is a way to reconcile the child-like, open, trusting quality of total belief, which is beautiful surely, with safety.

Interesting questions, Patry!

Melly said...

Thanks Patry. I have to admit that I stopped reading half way through, afraid of spoilers (I still intend to watch this), but your review confirmed what my inlaws said.

Mary said...

This is a movie review that is much more than a movie review. Your second sentence is so true. And I would add a comparison to an unwritten blog post as well ... :-)

It sounds good. I haven't heard of the movie and I will have to do some searching to see if it is available over here. That kind of openness and generosity driven by belief that you describe .... is so infinitely alluring and yet so terrifying (to me anyway) at the same time. As regards safety, perhaps when you believe at that level, safety isn't an issue any longer? You rejoice no matter what? I don't know.

Anyway, thank you for the pointer, Patry.

Patry Francis said...

sara: You've definitely got the movie-blame game down pitch perfect! Your version was hilarious--and dead-on. I've sat through my share of How to Lose a Guy...type movies for the same reason. But now I walk away more often--like I did with the French film which didn't pull me in.

fred: I wasn't really aware of what the Sukkot was before I saw this film. It is a temporary shelter where the Orthodox celebrate the holiday to remind themselves of the temporary, makeshift nature of life. In that sense, we are all strangers and visitors here. I'll be interested to read your reaction.

Brenda:You're right, Brenda. It's a difficult balance. One thing I admired about the film is that the characters acknowledged the challenge--and their own ambivalence. At one point, the wife angrily accuses her husband (paraphrasing badly here): "I could have been killed by these guys!"

Melly: I tried not to include any major spoilers, but I'm glad you stopped reading before you hit a minor one! Come back and let me know what you think after you watch it...

Patry Francis said...

Mary: We must have x-posted. Oh yes, you are so right about the unwritten blog posts! I was there yesterday--thinking I SHOULD write, feeling empty of ideas...You know the drill.

Same principle holds for leftovers in the fridge, now that I think of it. The longer they sit, the more guilt accumulates--and the less likely it becomes that they will ever be eaten.

As far as trust goes, I've tended to swing between opposite poles--trusting too much and too naively, and then withdrawing when I got singed.

Anyway, I hope the film is available there. I would love to hear your take.

Kyahgirl said...

Hi Patry, thanks for visiting my blog.

what a fabulous movie review. I'm interested!!!

rdl said...

Sounds way better than Rumor has it, wish is the dumbest DVD I've ever rented, i think. Can't believe those actor and actresses actually lowered themselves to make this film.

Laini Taylor said...

I got a real chuckle out of the vision of stale Netflix envelopes lying around -- we do the same thing. We kept Wings of Desire half-watched for about two months before sending it back, and currently have Paradise Now gathering dust. I know it's supposed to be really good, but I never find myself in a suicide-bomber mood. However, I'm sure if we just bite the bullet and put it in, it'll suck us in right away.

Myfanwy Collins said...

Sounds like one I'd like.

Rebekah said...

I still wander the aisles of Blockbuster, totally bewildered, determined not to get sucked into the obvious, simply because I recognize titles from obscene amounts of marketing. But ultimately I find myself staring blankly at the boxes and without fail am the one in our household who brings home the movies that cannot hold our interest for the requisite 10 minutes. I love your review, and am excited to view this movie - for many reasons. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it seems like everything is really just a test.

You so nailed the feeling of watching movies being a chore...especially if they're due back to the video store on Monday. Or if you get the 6 for $6 deal...forget about it. Also, nailed the marital sport of blaming each other for the bad picks. Classic.

Glad one worked out.

Anonymous said...

The Sukkah mitzvah
Dwelling in the sukkah is one of the mitzvahs of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
It is a mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah for seven days.
It is written in the Torah (Vayikrah / Leviticus 23:42) "You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days; every inhabitant of Israel shall dwell in sukkot. In order that your generation shall know that I caused the Jews to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your G-d." In commemoration of this we are commanded to build a sukkah in order to remember the great and wondrous deeds of G-d
When should you build your Sukkah ?
Optimally, one should start to build the sukkah immediately after the Yom Kippur fast in order to fulfill the commandment "Yilchu michayil le chayil – “They go from strength to strength" (Tehilim/ Psalms 84) - From the mitzvah of Yom Kippur to the mitzvah of sukkot.
Don't forget "Zrizim makdimim le'mitzvot" (Psachim 4) – It's good to be an early bird for a mitzvah!
Where should you build your Sukkah?
The sukkah should be built under the open skies. If it is built under a porch, tree or roof, it is not considered a kosher sukkah
The size of the sukkah
There are no limitations on how big a sukkah can be. However, the schach should not be higher than 20 Amot, or approximately 30 feet from the floor. On the other hand, the minimum size of the sukkah is 24.5"x24.5"x35" (length*width*height).

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